COAL: 1979 Dodge Omni – It Did Everything Well

Note: None of the pictures here are of the actual car.  This is the same color combo as mine.

When the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon first came to market in 1978, they were so popular that you either paid sticker price or you didn’t buy one.  Front wheel drive, highly space efficient, and cheap to run.  What was not to like.  I did resist until my previous car, a 1976 Aspen wagon, was going into the final phase of its life.   One day, a co-worker mentioned that his neighbor was going to sell his 1979 Dodge Omni and that the price was reasonable with only 60,000 miles.  So, into the pool I jumped.

The Dodge Omni was marketed as a car that could do everything well.  It had a roomy interior with well laid out controls.  The rear seat could be folded down for increased storage capacity.  It was light and got great fuel economy.  The picture below shows the great space efficiency of the L-body design.  When you compared the Omni to the Chevy Chevette, there was no contest.  The Chevette felt cramped, under powered, and had minimal storage space.

On the down side, the lift over height for the hatch made putting things inside difficult.  The body was tight, but you knew it was a cheap car when going over bumps in the pavement.  The basic suspension design came from the european Horizon/Simca, and was quite good overall.  It would form the basis for the upcoming K-cars and minivans.

My particular car had an automatic transmission, power steering, AM/FM radio, and wheel trim rings.  No A/C in a car with a black vinyl interior.  The engine was a 1.7L Volkswagen engine.  .Thirteen inch wheels.  Adequate power, but no barn burner.  The instrument panel was very much driver centric, with even the heater control located to the left of the steering wheel.  Only the radio was accessible by the passenger.


Once I started using the Omni as a daily driver, upgrades were soon to follow.  Another co-worker had an extra set of steel wheels and tires left over from his K-car.  Fourteen inch tires sounded better than thirteens, so I bought and installed them.  Even though the tires were a different profile than the OEM tires, they fit perfectly and did not interfere with the fender.  After a couple of years sweating on the black vinyl seats, I decided that air conditioning was on the agenda of upgrades.  I purchased the A/C components from a junker and went about the transition.  The only difficult parts were the relocation of the air intake vent on the firewall and the installation of the coolant hoses.  On non A/C cars, the intake was in the center whereas on the A/C cars, it was on the passenger side.  The entire heater plenum had to be changed to add the evaporator.  I made careful measurements on the donor car and transferred them to my car.  Everything fit fine and after I bought new hoses and a condenser, the system worked.  On the other hand, putting A/C on the 1.7L engine decreased any reserve power.  If you wanted any kind of performance, the A/C had to be switched off.

The last upgrade I made to the Omni was a rear hatch wiper.  Since I was familiar with the hardware and installation after installing an Omni wiper on my Dodge Aspen wagon, this was simple.  Used motors from the junkyard were a non-starter, as the motors tended to leak water from the blade shaft.  New motors were cheap and the only way to go.

During my ownership of the Omni, it never failed to get me where I needed to go and back again.  The only rear weak spot of this car was the floor and sub-frame.  I did have to repair the floor under the driver’s feet, using sheet metal gleaned from an old washing machine.  The sub-frame that held the rear suspension also showed some rust through, but not enough to warrant any repairs.  After all, this was designed to be a throwaway car.  When I spotted my next “new to me” car, the Omni had to go.  I sold it to my wife’s cousin, whose son promptly rolled over on a country road while playing race car driver a few months later.  I would own several other Omnis/Horizons during my career as a car flipper and truly appreciated the overall design and execution.